Matabeleland disturbances: A historical perspective


THERE have been disturbing incidences in the Matabeleland region over the past few weeks where consultative meetings by the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) were disrupted by a Western-sponsored grouping called the Mthwakazi Youth Joint Resolution.
The group went on a rampage, calling for the removal of non-Ndebele speaking members of the commission from hearing the views of the people.
Prior to the disruptions, the group, composed mainly of young people and church organisations, had been collecting money under the guise of trying to assist the ‘victims’ of the so-called Gukurahundi disturbances that occurred in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.
The group has been moving around offices, private residences and churches seeking financial and material assistance.
They have reportedly collected large sums of money from countries such as South Africa, Botswana, the US and Britain.
Their actions have received wide condemnation from the people of Matabeleland who view it as a ploy to thwart efforts by the new Government to usher in a new political trajectory which is premised on justice, healing, reconciliation and nation building, embracing all tribes.
The group has, however, been left with egg on the face as most chiefs in Matabeleland provinces have embraced President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s call for peace and reconciliation among Zimbabweans.
The President reiterated his call when he met members of the Zionist Church in Harare recently and urged them to embrace and respect each other as well as preaching peace among their congregants.
While chiefs and other peace-loving Zimbabweans have chosen to take a more conciliatory route around the controversial subject believed to have been propped up by some Western countries and churches bent on dividing the country along tribal lines, parties such as ZAPU have dismissed Mthwakazi group’s campaign as attention-seeking and divisive.
Vice-President Kembo Mohadi, who oversees the National Healing and Reconciliation Portfolio in Cabinet, has also assured chiefs that issues surrounding Gukurahundi would be addressed in an amicable way, further denting efforts by the Mthwakazi Youth Joint Resolution to demonise the new Government.
Gleaning from Breaking Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 to 1988 by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) in Zimbabwe, one can tell the undertones of how the colonial architect Cecil John Rhodes bribed one of his lieutenants Frederick Courtney Selous to exaggerate tribal conflict between the Shona and Ndebele.
The late historian Terrence Ranger noted that there were always ‘territorial tensions’ between the two tribes by the time colonialism came.
He says the reason was to have the two tribes engrossed in civil war so that they would not see the enemy coming.
However, the CCJP Report observed that this situation was not unique to Zimbabwe as it reads: “As countries in southern Africa began to gain independence from 1975 onwards, white-ruled South Africa began an increasingly coherent policy of destabalising these nations, in order to prolong its power.”
Below is some historical insight of how whites and the missionaries divided the people along tribal lines.
There is evidence that at least some of the contemporary regional names of African tribes, dialects and languages are fairly recent inventions in historical terms.
There is evidence from history to show that missionary linguistic politics were an important factor in this process.
The South African linguist Clement Doke was brought to Zimbabwe to resolve conflicts about the orthography of Shona.
His Report on the Unification of the Shona Dialects (1931) shows how the language politics of the Christian denominations, which were also the factions within the umbrella organisation, the Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference, contributed quite significantly to the creation and promotion of Zezuru, Karanga and Manyika as the main groupings of dialects in the central area which Doke later accommodated in a unified orthography of a unified language that was given the name ‘Shona’.
While vocabulary from Ndau was to be incorporated, words from the Korekore group in the north were to be discouraged, and Kalanga in the west was allowed to be subsumed under Ndebele.
Writing about 60 years later, Ranger focused more closely on the Manyika and takes his discussion to the 1940s.
He also mentions that the Rhodesia Front Government of the 1960s and 1970s deliberately incited tribalism between the Shona and the Ndebele, while at the same time magnifying the differences between the regional divisions of the Shona, which were, in turn, played against one another as constituent clans.
It would appear then that, for the indigenous Africans, the price of Christianity, Western education and a new perception of language unity was the creation of regional ethnic identities that were at least potentially antagonistic and open to political manipulation.
Through many decades of rather unnecessary intellectual justification and as a result of the collective colonial experience through the churches, the schools and the workplaces, these imposed identities as well as the myths and sentiments associated with them, have become fixed in the collective mind of Africa, and the modern nation states of the continent now seem to be stuck with them.
Missionaries played a significant role in creating this scenario because they were mainly responsible for fixing the ethno-linguistic maps of the African colonies during the early phase of European occupation.
To a significant extent, these maps have remained intact and have continued to influence African research.
In The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Cleavages: The Case of Linguistic Divisions in Zambia, Daniel Posner asserts that colonialism created tribalism in Zambia by establishing linguistic categorisation and mapping of ethnic groups.
In his view, these groupings bore little-or-no resemblance to actual ethnic divisions; rather, they represented the careless manner in which missionary and educational systems favoured some languages over others.
The case of Zimbabwe closely resembles Posner’s study of Zambia.
Tribal identities in Zimbabwe too
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